U.S. lumber futures have hit their highest prices ever. July 2021 futures on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange are set at $1,541 per 1,000 board feet (us.fsc.org).
As we’ve learned from rising construction costs, wood is in high demand and has people asking themselves how lucrative tree farming is.
A timber stand’s value depends on the size of the trees, the species, the quality of the wood, the ease of the harvest and the distance to a mill. For example, black cherry may obtain a much better price for veneer than a crooked sweetgum which may be priced for paper.
On a tree farm, pine for chipboard or paper can be thinned for the first time after 10 to 20 years. An initial thinning of an oak forest yielding lumber products may occur as early as 60 to 70 years in our region.
The cheapest wood often comes from fast growing evergreens, such as pine, fir and spruce. It is comparatively soft and has a closed grain, which makes it a better choice for construction and general woodworking.
Here too, we distinguish between grades of wood, with a grade C being ideal for trims, while grade D may have knots the size of a dime and can be used for bigger projects. Grades A and B are often dedicated to veneers and furniture.
In general, high-quality wood at the base of the tree is used for higher value products like veneers and big pieces of lumber. Wood from the middle of the tree is used for wood pallets and smaller pieces. The thinner wood towards the top and other logs not suitable for saw timber are turned into chips, which may become wood pulp for biomass fuel, firewood and paper products.
When making decisions for your forest, you usually establish a Forest Stewardship Plan with a Maryland Licensed Professional Forester who may be employed by the Maryland Forest Service or by private consultants. The forester and land owner will discuss the objectives which can relate to forest products, wildlife enhancement, soil and water conservation, forest health, aesthetics, protecting habitats, etc.
If an overriding objective is forest products, and the condition of the forest supports this goal, the decision may be to sell timber. In this case, you can contact a professional forester or forestry consultant who can advise on tree selection, pricing, developing a contract to protect the owner’s interest, protecting sensitive areas and where the timber should be harvested.
The Frederick County Forestry Board ensures sustainable harvesting of wood, which requires that enough material is left in the woods to improve soil quality, retain moisture, provide habitat for wildlife and nurture new saplings. It entails logging a limited number of selected and marked mature trees, either making space for younger trees to grow taller through overstory removal, or if you’re looking to grow larger trees such as oak, by thinning out smaller trees such as birch, maple and black gum from below.
The amount of trees to cut down depends on the type of woodland. In addition, it is important to leave a variety of trees to avoid disease, and also to keep couple of snags (old dead trees), which are key to wildlife. Clear cutting happens less frequently and usually is negotiated with the state to make way for new construction. When this happens, the Maryland Forest Conservation Act and Frederick’s Forest Resource Ordinance requires a reforestation plan where an equivalent or larger acreage of trees needs to be replaced elsewhere.
Once your land is clearly mapped and the selected trees are marked, you can look for competing bids from potential buyers. Professional foresters generally prepare a timber prospectus sheet which is sent to local forest product operators and log mills to obtain bids. Most sales in our area are the result of “sealed bids,” where buyers get a period of time to inspect the timber, submit written bids, and then all bids are opened on the day of the sale. The other possibility is a timber auction. Once you’ve chosen the winning bid, you need a detailed and signed contract that describes exactly what is included and the price and how payments are made.
The harvesting of timber requires a logging permit, which must be approved by Frederick County Department of Environmental Compliance, Frederick Soil Conservation District, Frederick County Planning and Zoning Office, and the Frederick County Forestry Board. The Frederick County Forestry Board also requires a logging site plan signed by the owner. During inspections, Forestry Board members evaluate both the marking based on the owner’s stated objectives and sustainable forestry practices and point out sensitive environmental areas, such as a “riparian” corridor around a stream. With the permit in hand, the timber cutting can begin.
Wood and paper, however, are not the only products we get from trees. Latex comes from the white fluid under the bark of a Rubber Tree, many sponges are made from wood fiber, wine corks come from Cork Oak bark, natural chewing gum comes from Chicle sap, certain car waxes come from a Brazilian Palm leaf, natural hair dye comes from the Henna tree, chocolate comes from the Cacao tree, tila tea comes from the Linden, and most of the Forestry Board are experts in Birch and Maple syrups, nuts and fruit. Not to mention that trees generate oxygen, condition the soil, and purify our water.
Finally, wood products are renewable and less energy and carbon-intensive to produce than competing materials, such as concrete and steel. In fact, as the tree grows, it sequesters carbon and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere purifying the air, and helping halt climate change while releasing fresh O2 — oxygen — for us to breathe. And when the tree is turned into building materials, that carbon stays locked away in the finished materials for decades.
Tree farms can be a lucrative undertaking based on how well they are planned. Licensed foresters and other natural resource professionals can help landowners establish a stewardship plan to meet preferred objectives. And if you should be in the market not to sell but to purchase a wood product, make sure to look for the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) label. The label means the product was created with material from a responsibly-managed forest.
This is the second piece in the four-part series Tree Farms: Recreation, Wood, Water, and Wildlife, from the Frederick County Forest Conservancy District Board. Learn more about the Frederick County Forest Conservancy District Board at frederick.forestryboard.org.